Return to Sermons | Home

“The True Treasure of the Church”
Romans 3:19-28


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Reformation Sunday—October 30, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Nearly 500 years ago on October 31, 1517 a monk named Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Nailing up a notice was actually not unusual, because in those days the church door served as the town bulletin board. But, this particular notice written by Luther was extremely unusual compared to the accepted religious ideas at the time.  Just as the first shot fired in 1775 at Lexington, Massachusetts was called the “shot heard round the world,” because it set off the American Revolution, you could call Luther’s nailing the notice to the church door that day the “hammer heard round the world,” because it set off the Reformation, a worldwide spiritual revolution, which we are commemorating today.

The topic Luther was writing about was the sale of what were called “indulgences,” which are based on the unbiblical teaching of purgatory.  Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” and the Apostle Paul says in Philippians, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”  So, the Bible clearly teaches that at the moment of death the souls of all who trust in Christ go immediately to be with him in paradise.  But, during the Dark Ages a false doctrine arose, not taught anywhere in the Bible, that when you die you must first suffer some remaining punishment in a supposed “purgatory.”  Based on this false doctrine, it was claimed indulgences were like a “get out of purgatory free card” that you could purchase, supposedly granting time off from purgatory and immediate entrance into heaven in exchange for your cash payment.

The purpose of the 95 Theses that Luther nailed to the castle church door was to challenge this false doctrine and call for a scholarly debate about them.  Luther’s 95 Theses were revolutionary, the “hammer heard round the world,” because he was beginning to lead the church out of the Dark Ages and back to teachings of God’s Word.

Jesus told the Pharisees, “In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”  That was the sorry state of the church at the beginning of the Reformation. Just coming out of the Dark Ages, the church had built up a whole series of false doctrines, such as purgatory and indulgences, which made it almost unrecognizable as Biblical Christianity.  That’s because during the Dark Ages very few clergy knew the original Bible languages of Greek and Hebrew, and many clergy were even illiterate and could not read and write any language.  Early on in the Reformation when Luther visited the churches in Saxony he was shocked to find clergy who didn’t even know the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer, let alone the Bible itself.  “God God!” he said.  “What wretchedness I beheld!  Many of the pastors are completely ignorant and incompetent.”

Luther, on the other hand, was a brilliant Bible scholar, fluent in Greek and Hebrew.  When he received his doctorate degree at age 28 he was the youngest person in history up to that time ever to be awarded a doctorate.   This year we’re celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Version, but 90 years before the King James Version, Luther had already translated the entire Bible into German.  With the end of the Dark Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance and Reformation, Luther was leading the church back to the Word of God, to rediscover what God actually says in his Word.

One of the Bible passages that would come to mean so much to Luther is today’s Epistle Reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. There is a parallel between Paul’s situation and Luther’s.  The book of Romans is like Paul’s own 95 Theses.  Because, like Luther, Paul was challenging the accepted, but false, religious ideas of his Hebrew people as they came out of their own Dark Ages.

Chronologically, there’s about a 400 year gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament, about the same length of time as the Dark Ages in Europe.  This time between the testaments was the Dark Ages of the Hebrew people, when the prophets ceased, but the Messiah had not yet come.  Like the Christian church in the Dark Ages, during this gap the Pharisees and other Hebrew leaders wandered from the Word and developed distorted doctrines not based on the Scriptures.

The Old Testament makes clear that we are sinners and cannot save ourselves.  Just before today’s Epistle Reading, Paul quotes some of these passages from the Old Testament to make this point that we cannot save ourselves: “All alike are under sin.  As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’”

But, during their own Dark Ages, the Hebrew people developed the false doctrine, not found anywhere in the Old Testament, that they could fully obey the Law of God and therefore earn their own salvation.  That is why they rejected Christ as their Savior, because you don’t need a Savior if you can save yourself.

Paul challenges this false notion and declares that the Law cannot make us righteous. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. . .  Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.”  What we do to keep the Law could never make us right with God, because we could never do enough.

By the time of the Reformation, the Christian church had fallen back into this same false doctrine, that with our good works we can earn our own salvation.  In fact, the church went so far as to say that you can literally buy your way into heaven.  Because they needed money to complete St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and one way to raise money was to sell indulgences, certificates supposedly granting God’s pardon and release from purgatory.

A monk named John Tetzel came selling indulgences in Germany.  He was a real huckster, who preached the supposed miraculous powers of indulgences to forgive all sins and guarantee entrance into heaven.  He also urged people to buy indulgences on behalf of departed loved ones supposedly suffering in purgatory, so that finally they could enjoy the blessings of heaven.  And because the people and even many of the clergy were ignorant of Scripture, most believed Tetzel’s claim that whoever bought an indulgence received full forgiveness of sins in exchange for their payment.  Tetzel even had a catchy sales jingle, “As soon as a coin in the box rings, another soul into heaven springs.” As a result, many people were led astray to believe that they did not need to repent of their sins, or trust in Christ for salvation, or live a godly life, because they could just buy their way into heaven.

Luther was outraged when he heard about this. The clear teachings of God’s Word and the Gospel of Christ were being denied by the very church that was supposed to proclaim them. Luther protested the sale of indulgences because it threatened to destroy a Christian’s faith in Christ and relationship with God.

It is that same concern for souls, that same concern for getting the Gospel right, that moved Paul to write to the Roman Christians.  Paul was pleading with them to understand that the Law cannot save people. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .  Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.”

So, if we can’t earn it ourselves, how are we saved?  Paul continues, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  Just as Luther pointed the church in his day back to the teachings of the Bible, Paul is telling the Hebrew people that the truth of salvation by grace, through faith in Christ, was there all along in their Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, commonly called the Law and the Prophets.  “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  The Old Testament clearly proclaims the Good News that the Messiah is bringing salvation to the world as a gift of God, earned not by our good works, but earned for us by his good works.  As Jesus said, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me.”

Isaiah proclaims that he will take our sins upon himself and suffer for them in our place: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”  Jeremiah says that his righteousness will be credited to us: “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will bring justice and righteousness to the earth. . .  This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.’”  And the Lord declares that salvation is not by works but by his gracious forgiveness in today’s Old Testament Reading from Jeremiah: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

You may have heard me mention that a question has been asked about our newest stained-glass window.  Is that sun at the bottom supposed to be the rising sun, or the setting sun?  It looks like it could be either.  Some have thought it must be the setting sun, to symbolize the end of creation, and the ending of the Old Testament era.  But, actually it was intended by the artist to be the rising sun.  Because it symbolizes the final prophesy of the coming Messiah, from the prophet Malachi in the last few verses of the Old Testament: “But for you who revere my name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings.”

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. . .  For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”

Luther used what Paul wrote to demonstrate from Scripture that we are not saved by the things we do. We are saved by what Jesus has done for us. God offered his Son as “a sacrifice of atonement.” We receive forgiveness and eternal life “through faith in His blood.”  In his 95 Theses, Luther began to call the church back to the Word of God, back to the Gospel the church in his day had largely forgotten, back to the Good News that Christianity is really all about: Your sins are all forgiven because God presented his own Son as a sacrifice of atonement; you are justified freely by his grace; you are righteous through faith in Jesus Christ.  Luther put it this way in his Thesis # 62: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

Amen.

  Return to Top | Return to Sermons | Home | Email Pastor Vogts